- Former Saracens scrumhalf Neil de Kock talks about whether he sees the SANZAAR alliance breaking up and what moving north would mean for South African rugby.
- The ex-Springbok, who featured in 10 Tests, explains why he doesn’t feel it would be in South Africa’s best interests to partake in the Rugby Championship this term.
- He also reveals what it was like working under Eddie Jones at the London club and explains why he defends the Australian coach whom Dylan Hartley has hit out at.
Sport24 asked: Could Covid-19 accelerate the SANZAAR dissolution?
Neil de Kock: I suppose I am a slave to the media like everyone else but it does seem like that (South African teams moving north) is the way it’s going to go. It looks like our future is going to lie elsewhere. To me, it seems pretty clear from an Australasian point of view that we are not necessarily needed or wanted. South African rugby is being forced in some way to look elsewhere and whether it happens in the near future or not, it does seem inevitable that we will be plying our trade elsewhere – potentially north.
In terms of timing and travel, many people say it makes sense but I can’t answer whether it’s commercially viable. However, from an interest point of view it does make sense. Many of South Africa’s top players are based in the northern hemisphere and I think it would be quite novel and refreshing to play against English or French teams. However, it’s probably unlikely that we will penetrate those markets and it’s more likely going to initially be the Celtic regions in the PRO14.
I think it would be a fantastic carrot to dangle in front of our two best performing teams and offer them the chance to compete in the European Rugby Champions Cup (Formerly known as the Heineken Cup). From a rugby point of view, I can attest to the fact that it is still one of the premier competitions out there having played in it for many years.
Sport24 asked: Your take on a potential Rugby Championship this term?
Neil de Kock: Should the 2020 Rugby Championship go ahead, I feel the Australasian teams would have an unbelievable advantage. From a gameplay perspective, I don’t think it’s a good idea for South Africa to partake in the Rugby Championship at the end of the year.
However, the commercial imperatives might dictate otherwise. It may make good business sense to partake in the tournament but, for me, I don’t think it does from a rugby point of view. There would be so many challenges to overcome. Our players would have to isolate for two weeks and the size of the squad would have to be immense owing to potential injuries. With the Covid-19 situation, you might have to be three-deep in every position. I don’t know what the cost implications would be from that standpoint. Moreover, the risk of the Rugby Championship being postponed or cancelled because of another surge of cases in New Zealand cannot be discounted.
I think it’s a big ask for Rassie Erasmus to take a squad to New Zealand without his players having had a full domestic competition. If the Rugby Championship does not end up taking place this year, it would allow us in South Africa to really have a strength versus strength local competition. It would be a throwback to the Currie Cup in its heyday. No disrespect to the current Currie Cup status but having some of best players who are locally-based playing in your domestic competition would pique public interest. It’s aspirational and is exactly what we need in terms of putting a new spin on the Currie Cup. I think it’s brilliant for local rugby and I’m convinced there would be fans flooding through the gates if they are allowed to attend when the competition commences.
Sport24 asked: Are you in favour of increased private ownership?
Neil de Kock: Much has been said about private ownership. The Bulls are the first case study in a South African context with private ownership taking place there. They will spearhead the private ownership model and it will be a good mark in the sand. The way things have gone for so long does cry out for change. Private ownership in rugby may well be the way forward. People who know what they are doing from a business point of view and have a passion for sport as well is a winning recipe. I’m not saying that unions don’t know what they are doing but in light of the pandemic it’s incredibly difficult for unions to survive in the current climate without any revenue coming through the coffers.
I believe the Bulls will be a brilliant example as far as how private ownership will pan out in the next two to three years. There are politics involved in sport whether a team is privately owned or not but decisions can be made quickly when private ownership is in place because of the structure and nature of the beast. Whereas with the current model, it has to go through all sorts of teams and powers that be to make decisions that are in the best interests of the union. I’m sure there are politics in both instances but decision-making is far more agile under private ownership.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Dylan Hartley’s player welfare comments?
Neil de Kock: I think Hartley definitely has a point. (In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Telegraph he remarked: “My generation of players have been crash dummies for a sport in transition from semi-professionalism”). Post-career, many players in various sporting codes think to themselves, “Bloody hell, I was just a commodity. I was used and abused all for commercial gain.” However, when you are in it as a player it is what it is and it’s the nature of the beast… Player welfare comes up time and time again.
The question is can players be managed better and the answer is: absolutely. In the English Premiership, for argument’s sake, the players are essentially required to play two games a week to complete the season. It’s a huge ask because some of those players also have to partake in the European Rugby Champions Cup and then there is not a massive break before the next season commences. In terms of the nature of the modern game, Hartley has certainly raised a pertinent issue. Maybe the downtime during the pandemic has given the men in suits time to reflect and perhaps say that less is more. Super Rugby is a great example of that point where we went from 10 to 18 teams. Fewer people watched the expanded competition and the interest waned over the years because it was a case of far too much rugby being played.
Sport24 asked: What did you make of Hartley hitting out at Eddie Jones?
Neil de Kock: I saw Hartley said that “I’d had enough of being governed by Eddie Jones”. For me, Eddie is a brilliant coach both tactically and technically. He is also the boss and makes no bones about the fact that he is in charge. What you can’t look past is the fact that Dylan had an incredibly successful run under Eddie, so whether the former was dictated to our told what to do, it worked out very well for him. Upon reflection, Dylan may think otherwise but when you play under Eddie – as I did at Saracens – you are very aware that he is in charge.
More than anything else, Eddie will reward an incredible work ethic because he has a work ethic second to none. If there are times when you slack off, fall behind or are not developing your game, as a player you are not going to find a place in his environment. I would imagine that Eddie was incredibly hard and demanding on Dylan particularly as captain because he would have had to assure himself that he was also the best hooker within the England squad. Having worked under Eddie, as a player you were always on your toes and it was a case that you couldn’t slack off for even two minutes because he would find out very quickly. (As he battled to prove his fitness, Hartley was eventually told by Jones: “You’re f****d, mate”.)
As a player, I would rather have a coach be blunt, direct and brutally honest than talk around the subject and walk on eggshells. Eddie had made up his mind and I respect that. Hartley knew where he stood and realised it was over with England. I firmly believe that every single player who has played professional rugby would rather have the hard truth than be given a glimmer of hope but know he actually stands no chance.
Sport24 asked: How do you see Saracens faring going forward?
Neil de Kock: I think more than ever Saracens will be driven to prove what they have achieved is sustainable. A think a lot of people out there would wish it upon the club that they never recover and return to the Premiership. However, it’s no use getting into a conversation about whether Saracens were right or wrong or the judgement was fair or unfair. The fact remains that they were found guilty, they will be relegated and I think Saracens will go out of their way to regain trust, credibility and respect on and off the field. I’m of the view that there are still a helluva lot of good people at the club.
Obviously mistakes were made but the fact is that top players and coaches want to remain at the club. That they are willing to go through a year in the Championship to bring the club back up and to the heights they were at speaks volumes about the club and the people that are involved. It is critical that Saracens earn direct promotion and I think they will come straight back up. Saracens is a club that knows how to play under pressure and how to win. It may at times be a frustrating journey they go on in the Championship but, in the same breath, it will be a very humbling one.
In terms of the makeup of their squad for next season, it’s a catch-22 situation for some players whether to stay or go. For young players who are aiming to break through on the international scene, they may see playing Championship rugby as a big risk. I respect the decision of the players who have decided to move on to other clubs. They are young, aspirational guys who want to be seen week-in and week-out and you cannot hold that against them for making that decision. However, if you are an older player it probably makes sense to stick around for the year and help the club to get out of the Championship.